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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Concert Review: Meet the New Boss

Sir Simon Rattle leads the Mahler Ninth.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sir Simon Rattle: Photo by Sebastian Grébille.
© 2018 London Symphony Orchestra.
In the hallowed confines of David Geffen Hall (OK, they're not exactly "hallowed" but they are well-used) there is no symphony that carries more weight (and more historical baggage) than Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9. So in some ways it was the ideal choice to open Mahler Transcending, a three-night celebration of the composer's last works, played by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its new boss, Sir Simon Rattle.



First, some history. The Ninth holds a special place among Mahler symphonies. It was the composer's final, completed utterance (he started the Tenth but only finished the first movement. It was written during the frantic final years, where, exiled from his job at the Vienna State Opera, Mahler lived and worked in New York, leading first the Metropolitan Opera and then the New York Philharmonic in a strange new city. Adding to that already heavy baggage is the Ninth's place at the vortex of a celebrated concert hall scandal in 2012 that took place in this very building.

The beginning was played with the utmost delicacy: a murmur of cellos and a pluck of harp. And then the slow, sad song began, sighing in the second violins before answer came, hesitantly, from the firsts. The melody unwound with a sweet and almost unbearable longing, and yet moved forward in a business-like manner without ever being allowed to dissolve into amorphous blobs of color and sound. Sir Simon's dedication to this work and rapport with his new orchestra made this engrossing, and not even the first fortissimo screams from brass and percussion could ruin this state of bliss.

The slow first movement (the tempo is Andante comodo, "at a comfortable walk") can be unbearable, but not here: its languors felt like they took no time at all. Under Sir Simon's hands, the last passages of the first movement bloomed delicately in the winds and violins: a flower that had struggled from the dirt and had to be protected at all costs. Even the ringing of two different cell phones (both plsying "Marimba"--why is it always "Marimba"?!) could not spoil this growth as it flowered in its beauty.

The two inner movements are the fast (or relatively fast) ones. The pseudo-Ländler came first, with chirping woodwinds and the rustic sawing of the strings loping along at a measured, easy pace. The main theme galumphed along, with a comic gravitas, made all the more wistful by its placement in the middle of this strange and mournful symphony. It was answered by the softly sighing middle section (with the descending theme from the first movement) before the slow drunken stomp of the Ländler returned.

Sir Simon let the gathering storm burst with sarcastic fury in the Rondo-Burleske, one of the strangest of Mahler's symphonic movements and here a showcase for the power and discipline of the LSO players. Indeed, they seemed glad of their music-making here as the theme was tossed about in brief, aphoristic fragments before returning to the start of the round with new energy, bitterness and yes, real anger.

The great sad song of the finale emerged at last, played with slow, majestic beauty by the shifting textures of the strings. All the tension and angst that had come in the two prior movements, dissipated here, with the built-up kinetic tension unwinding and unspooling itself in this lament. The orchestra would falter and then drag itself forward into the next set of themes, urged by Sir Simon's stabbing baton and waggling left hand that seemed to summon more vibrato in each phrase. The horns added themselves to the great song and the orchestra gathered itself for final paroxysms before that last, terrifying silence.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.